Thursday, July 30, 2009

Big Price, Big Sky

Just got back from a week in Montana. Katie's family had a little reunion at her Uncle Mike's place in Hamilton, just about 45 miles south of Missoula. It's in the big middle of the Bitterroot Valley with some of the best fly fishing in the world every direction.
These reunion things are tricky. With 4 generations, I fit into the second oldest. The age range present was 1 1/2 to 88. I always know there will never be enough time to fish where and when I want, but at least this time I did get a couple of chances, with one day to myself on the East fork of the Bitterroot. I like the E. fork because the water is smaller, much to my liking. Supposedly so are the fish, but I've managed to catch and land a few that go to about 12 inches. Works for me. I think that's what makes the East fork such a solitary place to go; it gets a bad rap. People generally believe that bigger is better. Maybe, sometimes. I rarely get to fish waters inhabited solely by cutthroat trout that going there makes it even more special. (technicality: there some crossbreeds between cuts and rainbows called cutbows present) On the photo of the river is a drop of rain that caught the camera lens.
On Tuesday, July 28th I took off for a few hours just above Sula, Montana. Sula is one of those one gas station, one bar towns that's easy to pass if you are expecting more. Somewhere between mile markers 11 and 14 there is a grassy shelf on the shoulder of the road and it's fairly easy to access the river. Just a slight incline down a rocky bank. Good snowmelt this year, as the river was deeper than I've seen and rushing by in some parts with plenty of white water. Too swift to get a decent drift on a dry fly, so the fish I took were all on nymphs. The nicest one was on a green bead head dark stonefly nymph I made myself. Just when he was positioned perfectly for a photo, he flipped me off and himself back into the river, breaking the fine tippet in the process and telling me just what he thought of the fly I tied.
The picture I got of him is just before he took off, in motion and slightly out of focus. I've come to see it as a metaphor for my relationship with fly fishing in Montana. All too fleeting, but definitely beautiful, unpredictable, and always leaving me wanting more time.
That evening we went to Uncle Mike's partner, Bonnie's home for a 7 year- old's birthday party. Right before a typical but formidable thunder and lightening storm hit, I caught a few shots of the big sky and accompanying surroundings. This is horse country, too. The horses in a nearby corral were instinctually herding themselves and running in wide sweeping circles just as the first lightening strikes hit. They, and we, all went inside by nightfall.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Climate Illiteracy

My friend Bill Bigelow, an outstanding social science teacher and editor for Rethinking Schools, wrote an op ed piece published in the Oregonian last Sunday. Bill argued that the Portland Public Schools were failing their students with an inadequate textbook for Global Studies that contained only three paragraphs on global warming. He further stated that teachers were not encouraged to write and develop their own curriculum on this important topic. Therefore it follows that many Portland students are globally illiterate. When the piece came out, I followed its reception online and was shocked to find how many nut cases are out there. Not only are they in denial about global warming, but their vicious comments suggested that Bill Bigelow's concerns were nothing more than the "leftist" ramblings of an "ex-hippy" and that he has a radical/liberal agenda for compromising the minds of Portland's student population. Some even went so far as to suggest global warming was an anti-capitalist/democratic conspiracy. They cited Al Gore's profit motive, and ranted that social science teachers should stay out of physical science.
My main concern is the de-skilling of teachers when school districts use this kind of packaged curriculum. I wrote a follow-up letter to the editor which, fortunately was published today. It follows:

Education climate change

Bill Bigelow's piece on the struggle to get school administrators to realize that the packaged curriculum they advocate is promoting illiteracy about climate change is compelling and timely.

Not only does he explain the source and the inadequacy of the texts used, he illustrates the difficulty that innovative teachers face when they attempt to create and present comprehensive, accurate, highly motivating lessons that invite students to think deeply about crucial issues.

What's also implicit in Bigelow's comments is the fact that these test-driven, de-skilling, corporate curriculum outfits like Houghton-Mifflin and McDougal Littell appeal to administrators because they can control the measurable bits of information necessary to elevate test scores. What happens when the test scores they covet prevent the education of the next generation to the extent that they are unable to solve these problems when the time inevitably comes?

As a 33-year veteran and now supervisor and mentor of beginning teachers, I have witnessed the pressure administrators exert on young teachers to "shut up and teach what you're assigned to teach."

How will this top-down approach ever attract the "best and brightest" to the profession? When the economy rebounds and districts are scrambling for new teachers to replace those retiring, we'll need an educational climate change too.

Southeast Portland

More comments to follow.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Dark Moon; No Eagle

40 years ago today, when Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 were landing on the moon, the world watched and waited. I did neither. Growing up in the 50s, I was a child of the space program. I made drawings of rockets, I put together models, and even saved up the incredible sum of 75 cents to buy a Co2 cartridge in hopes of launching something.
One time a friend and I built a mini Cape Canaveral out of my Erector Set. It readied an Atlas rocket for liftoff with a small electric motor. That's all it did.
In the 6th grade, my friend Randy and I saved up a dollar and a half and bought a small paperback at the local drugstore called SATELLITE! We coveted that book and finally owned it. Of course we weren't quite up to the reading level of the text, but did our best to understand as much as we could. I can still see that shiny silver ball with four antennae on the cover of the book.
A moon landing should have seen me in the front row somewhere. It didn't.
In July of 1969 I was completing my training as a VISTA Volunteer. I was in Houston, Texas. NASA is in Houston, Texas. ("Houston, we have a problem") The problem I had was that VISTAs were taken out of town for a few days while the world turned its attention of the Space Center at NASA Headquarters.
Poor people in Houston, and much of the south believed that our astronauts never went to the moon. That's right, many believed and still do today that it was all staged. It was a kind of collective denial because it cost billions to take that little moonwalk and millions were dealing with hunger and poverty here at home. In Houston there were demonstrations. The brass at the Office of Economic Opportunity feared that many VISTAs would either get too involved with their communities or possibly get arrested that they took the entire project on a little forced vacation.
So, while the rest of the country was getting ready to witness history, we were on a bus to Freeport, Texas for a getaway to the Gulf coast near Galveston. We relaxed, we swam in the Gulf, we sunbathed until it was time to get back on those Continental Trailways buses and return to Houston. Our exit from Freeport was delivered on a hurricane warning. The water turned gray as the sky, the wind and waves got threatening, so off we went.
I remember we were so hungry that when we stopped at an Italian Restaurant for dinner (on the government's dime) we ate the butter before the bread found its way to the table. I remember it was dark, somewhere around 10 or 11 p.m. when we got back to our communities in Houston. I remember that day, but I do not remember the moon landing. It wasn't until I returned back to "civilian life" that I ever read about the moon landing. When I see the pictures, hear the famous "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind," I listen carefully. It's been 40 years and we still have poverty and unemployment, and still haven't been back t the moon. I'll use this day to sort this out.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Way It Is

Walter Cronkite was the nation's elder statesman. He functioned as giver of news, bastion of integrity. Sure, he could be difficult to work for, but he insisted on accuracy. Contrast that with what passes for news and news-givers today. Imagine a time when there was really only one newscast most folks watched. Sure there were other outstanding broadcasters in the latter half of the 20th century, but Cronkite had it all.
Even though he was the one who brought us the first televised war... Vietnam, he also had the courage to speak out against the foolishness of the policy that killed so many unnecessarily. When Cronkite questioned the war, you new you were in the majority all of a sudden.
At 92, Cronkite's passing is a more than just a milestone. It is a painful reminder of what we are left with for journalists. I acknowledge that these are the ramblings of someone growing older, someone sensing the loss of an institution. I realize too that institutions change, grow, reform. Yet, I can't help but feel there is more here.
Perhaps it helps never to have known how it was. Never to have seen how one news person spoke to everyone. He told us about the unthinkable only revealing small bursts of his own emotion. When Cronkite emoted, we followed.
Never to have seen Cronkite at his best makes it easier to watch the ongoing drivel we have today. Makes it easier to take the light-weight analysis, the bleeding headlines, the tabloid standard that passes for journalism but is only bad entertainment. The line is not in the sand, it is in the mud.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Debit This

I thought she was sad. I thought because her head hung down and she was motionless she was in an emotional state. He was equally as still. He just stared across the small table. Said nothing. She remained in the same position. Were they having a breakup conversation? Bad news? Some trauma-stunned revelation? No, she was texting.
I wondered why it took so long to get a simple cup of coffee. With only a couple of people in front of me, why was this small line going so slow? Texting? No, morning coffee on a credit card.
"He's either schizophrenic or has a bluetooth in his ear." How many times lately have I said that or you thought that? These are the new circumstances of our changing age. I watch my niece's 18 month old look at a computer screen, point to and press a button on a CD player, and marvel at the in-car images on the traveling DVD screen. His great grandmother can barely say DVD (it comes out more like VD) yet he knows all about cause and effect.
I wonder what happens to all the card swiping data generated? Supposedly there are profiles and conclusions drawn by credit card companies and financial institutions all the time. I must confess I'm a bit paranoid about my debit choices. All kinds of hypotheses are being formed.
The experts tell us that using cash is emotional, therefore we spend less. Shhsh! Don't tell my bank I said that. It's true though. If you can feel it in your hand, see it going here and there. Feel the wallet diminish. It's bound to have an impact.
Is this a collision course? Fifty years from now we'll have no need for money; just the concept. Just think what that will do to pop culture and music. Maybe there is a new root of all evil on the horizon. All 16 numbers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


On a warm afternoon not unlike this one, I sat outside on a grass quad and listened to conversation between two middle aged men. Their appearance would suggest they had dropped out of the 9-5 world of gainful employment in favor of barely getting by; they were content nonetheless.
Young people today would call them Hippies, or wanna-be Hippies, but back then they were just two individuals who dared to stop cutting their hair every few weeks, informed themselves about the political realities of the day, and tried to live by another set of values with the express purpose of seeing if it could be done.
This day they marveled at their appearance as well as every other long-haired, multi-colored wearing person on the grassy expanse. Boots and bell-bottoms were in. Horn-rimed eyeglasses gave way to rimless or wire rimed. Blue work shirts, Levis, headbands, and flowers were everywhere. People wore their politics.
As these two comfortable counter-culture participants sat waiting for the next speaker to take the free speech platform on the UCLA campus, they began discussing what the children of the future might do to express their own cultural identity 30 or 40 years hence.
"They'll probably say, mom, dad, I'm gonna get electrodes implanted in my head, just like all my friends," said one to another. His friend replied, "Yeah, they'll probably listen to their music that way."
It has happened yet, but stick around. These two crystal ball gazers weren't too far off. They never considered the popularity of tattoos or body piercing; yet they may have been in the ballpark after all. People do wear their music and from where I sit, things are headed toward one big electronic switchboard, be it hand-held or internally placed.
I wonder about the next phase of tattoos. I'm guessing we'll able to change them on a whim some day. Maybe through the electrodes in our heads.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Wrong, Terribly Wrong"

With the passing of Robert McNamara this week, comes the recognition that at least one of the original architects of the Vietnam War had thought a good deal about all the lessons of that huge mistake. In film and writing, McNamara had the guts to say he was wrong. That translates to "us." That we were wrong. Yes, it's too little too late. But at lest it's something. For those of us who survived that dismal time, those of us who made it back in whatever form that took, it's quite something.
Nobody embodies the image of a stubborn federal government more than Robert Strange McNamara. With his rimless glasses, and slicked down hair, as if parted by a scalpel, he was every government bureaucrat incarnate. Back then, in the late 1960s, Robert McNamara conjured up images of flag-draped coffins, death certificates, draft lottery numbers, and the weekly scoreboard on the CBS Evening News. It must be Thursday because here's Walter Chronkite with American, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese flags over his shoulder. Hundreds, sometimes thousands each week. Death count in living color.
Ironically, McNamara becomes increasingly important for those of us who see the complete picture. His Vietnam memoir, "In Retrospect" explains that he and his peers misjudged the political realities of Vietnam. He admits that they lacked cultural understanding and often misjudged the intentions of their enemy. No doubt, Robert McNamara took this realization, and its consequences, to his grave. That was unavoidable. Yet, he validates the stance many of us took back then. He now becomes our ally; the one we look to for clarification, to defend our stance and ultimately to remind those who forget that we have nothing to apologize for, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing but true patriotism. His legacy must be re-examined because his perspective on all those decisions and their consequences grows ever more crucial if we are to learn anything from that awful mistake.
Yesterday 4 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. I hope Obama and his policy advisors have read McNamara's book. When we look at the Republic of Vietnam today, we see a vigorous economy, a valued trading partner with the U.S. and Americans traveling to the Mekong Delta for everything form romantic getaways to cheap labor. All in the name of the domino theory. A theory no more.